Since the 1950s, most American babies’ first solid foods—per pediatricians’ advice—have been safe, bland, refined rice cereal and high-heat-processed, jarred baby foods. Today, a growing number of children’s health experts insist parents can do much better than that.

To make rice cereal, most of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are stripped out of the rice, which is a nutritional disaster for babies, says Alan Greene, MD, author of Feeding Baby Green (Jossey-Bass, 2009). In fact, highly processed cereal not only robs babies of flavorful, nutrient-rich whole foods, but it may also set them up for a lifetime preference for less healthy foods. Here’s the new advice on how to “imprint” healthy tastes for life.

What is nutrition imprinting?

Initial research indicates the first foods baby eats—and, even before that, the foods mom eats—can have a lifelong impact on her developing palate. Earlier research has also linked prenatal and early postnatal nutrition to risks for developing diet-related chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and obesity in adulthood. Overall, this “imprinting” research suggests humans are born with a taste blueprint, and early experiences can determine whether a child will prefer quinoa or french fries later in life.

“The foods you eat while you’re nursing come through in breast milk, so babies get a sense of different flavor profiles before they even take a bite of solid food,” says Anni Daulter, author of Organically Raised (Rodale, 2010). “The more variety you eat, the more your baby’s palate gets prepped for different foods.”

As babies grow, most jarred baby foods—although undeniably convenient—fall short on flavor and nutrition. “Baby food you buy off the shelf may have been heated to 500 degrees; that kind of heating kills all of the pathogens, but it also kills the color, flavor, and nutritional value,” says Daulter. Gently steaming, stewing, or roasting fruits and vegetables kills most pathogens while preserving more nutrients.

Best starter foods

Once you’re ready to introduce solids, usually at about 6 or 7 months, choose a rainbow of fresh foods, beginning with fruits and vegetables and building up to whole grains and proteins. Excellent early foods include bananas, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, apples, pears, carrots, and avocados. According to Greene, the only foods to avoid for safety reasons during the first year are those that could potentially cause infections (such as honey, which can contain botulinum toxin) and ones mom avoided while pregnant (raw or high-mercury fish and soft, unpasteurized cheeses, for example). Whenever possible, spring for organic produce, which helps ensure your baby isn’t exposed to harmful pesticides or genetically modified ingredients. And try to introduce as many foods as possible before age 2 or 3, when children go through a stage called neophobia and become physically fearful of trying new foods.

What about iron?

“There are plenty of ways to get iron into your baby’s diet,” Greene says. “You can choose an iron-enriched whole-grain cereal, add iron drops to your baby’s food, or opt for iron-rich foods, like eggs, lentils, beans, prunes, greens, seafood, poultry, and meat.” And don’t forget a pinch of spice: Thyme, spearmint, marjoram, cumin, parsley, celery seed, turmeric, basil, and oregano all contain more iron per milligram than red meat.

Worth the effort

Cooking food from scratch takes time, but it’s worthwhile when you consider you’re shaping your child’s tastes; mentally fast-forward two years and think about how easy it will be to get your child to eat broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach. “If you don’t do it now, you’ll suffer later when your toddler’s palate is just one note, and all he’ll eat is pizza, chicken nuggets, and mac ’n’ cheese,” says Daulter. But don’t beat yourself up if your kids are past the 3-year mark and subsist largely on pizza. “I have four kids and I didn’t figure this out until later,” admits Greene. “But it’s never too late for today’s good choices to make tomorrow better.”

Four secrets for baby-food success

Eat with your child. “Kids do best when they see mom and dad eating the same foods,” says Greene. Just take what you’re eating and mash it up with a grinder, handheld blender, or even your fingers, until it’s a texture your baby can handle.

Don’t give up. Babies don’t “imprint” foods until they’ve tasted them, on average, six to ten times. “Give your baby one bite of the same food every day for one week,” suggests Greene. Chances are good that by Saturday, your baby will really like the same food he hated last Sunday.

Think crayons. Fruits and veggies come in five main colors: red, yellow-orange, white, purple, and green. Each color represents a different mix of beneficial plant nutrients, so variety is key.

Try frozen organic baby food. If you can’t carve out time to make your own baby food, try the fresh-frozen variety in your natural grocer’s freezer. “They’re definitely a better alternative than shelf-stable foods,” says Daulter.